As it's been with previous social movements, the East Bay is in the vanguard of "localism," a movement that aims to build and maintain community spirit and wealth through an emphasis on buying from local merchants. Our paper is an active member of this movement and we are proud that we were recently honored by Editor and Publisher magazine as one of the "10 That Do It Right" in our industry for our emphasis on localism.
Localism can be an antidote to environment-destroying conceptions of "progress" as an unstoppable force, as the movement encourages socially conscious consumption. It juxtaposes the often-specious argument of "free trade" with a localist conception of "fair bought" and is anticorporate, although not anticapitalist.
But what is localism, exactly? How do we think about the complicated issues that are arising in its application?
A deeper look into what makes the movement is important now. As localism grows, attacks on it are mounting from the corporatists. An article in Forbes magazine last month accused localism of having no intellectual heft. While the Forbes article conceded that the "feel-good aesthetic of localism is a real consumer demand," it accused localists of a selfish individualism by eschewing a global viewpoint in place of a local one. Localists, according to this argument, are engaging in a "parochialism that only seeks prosperity for those in my immediate midst." While it is no secret where Forbes stands in this debate, its article points out that there are real questions that need to be met.
And consider this: Recently, local locavore hero Michael Pollan publicly denounced the boycott of Whole Foods, whose CEO, John Mackey, has injected himself into the health-care debate on the side of the health-care conglomerates. In opposing the backlash against this large corporation, which has put many small local organic groceries out of business, Pollan claims that if Whole Foods "were to disappear, the cause of improving Americans' health by building an alternative food system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats, and sustainable agriculture, would suffer." Given the respect that most have for Pollan, what is a localist to do with his stance?
An excellent place to consider these questions is with a new book, Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and Urban Development in the United States. The author, David Hess, has marshaled the intellectual arguments for localism using history, present success stories, and economic arguments. It is precisely in answering questions from friends and enemies that Hess' book is important. Hess, an advocate and academic, believes that the practice of localism can support and maintain a rich and healthy community. Hess analyzes the myriad social and financial ways that patronage of locally owned businesses strengthens social bonds and the financial health of a local community. Many of his arguments are familiar to those who try to buy local. Hess found that buying local results in more business profits staying in the community, more taxes paid locally, more sourcing of goods and services from other local vendors, and more donations to local nonprofits.
Local consumption is not a new idea, he notes. In the 1920s, small retail businesses banded together against the birth of the first chain stores, like the A&P food company. Small farmers have often preached a localist gospel and connected with other forces opposing corporatism. But localism and the history of small business movements is decidedly mixed. In the South when I grew up, local chambers of commerce and white-owned small businesses were nearly always on the side of segregation. One of the most important tools in the civil rights movement was consumer boycotts of these white-owned small businesses and the encouragement to buy at black-owned establishments. Today, however, localism is often able to bridge this type of divide by defining arguments in different and less "partisan" ways, Hess believes.
Localism cannot be just knee-jerk promotion of small business or the defense of local workers at the expense of those in other states or countries. Today, many who claim to speak for small business are at the forefront of the movement to stymie health-care reform, joining Mackey of Whole Foods. The National Federation of Independent Business, often credited with helping to deep-six the Clinton health-care plan, is now lobbying against both the public option for health care and any requirement that employers provide health care for their employees. No public care and no employer care; how does that build community? But as Hess notes, small businesses with a more progressive agenda are forming powerful groups, such as the active Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
For localism to realize its potential, Hess argues, progressive localists have work to do in the area of social equality. Certainly that is true in a community as socioeconomically varied as the East Bay. Hess maintains that the core question is "How do the movements that support increased local ownership connect with efforts to make our society more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable?"
Hess' general answer is that local businesses must be reframed as "community stewards." That is, if local consumers are going to see shopping locally as a progressive act, businesses must act correspondingly by doing things that build a tangible sense of community in the physical community. Happily, the East Bay is farther along than most communities in this regard.
Interestingly, Hess sees the next frontier of this movement as local finance. Today, all of us who have retirement savings, whether in large entities like the California Public Employees' Retirement System or in self-directed individual retirement accounts, have money that is being siphoned off to finance the big businesses that oppose localism. The challenge, Hess believes, will be the development of a financial sector that is by the locals, for the locals. While models are slowly emerging in this area, such as the Oakland-based OneCalifornia Bank, this prescription should be a clarion call to the local banking and credit-union community as it considers where to find healthy growth in the wake of the ongoing banking debacle.
In a sense, localism is following the trajectory of environmentalism. At the beginning of the environmental movement, only big businesses and their politician friends seemed to be against it. Yet, as time has gone by, the issues in environmentalism have become more complex and contentious. For many who consider themselves environmentalists, it is difficult to know exactly where to stand on a particular environmental issue today. For example, as Robert Gammon pointed out in these pages in July, it is difficult to be an urban environmentalist and a NIMBY at the same time. In order to move forward, environmentalism must come to grips with difficult issues such as this. Localism is entering a similar space.
Localism can play a progressive role in many areas. But for its practitioners, now is the time to start taking the hard questions seriously. Without proper attention, the movement is likely to be overwhelmed by complexity and controversy. If that happens, the creativity and community that can come from local ownership will be lost.
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